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Sunday February 28th

'Changing the game': Black in Technology works to support Black students in computer science

Former UNC student, Charlie Helms poses for a virtual portrait with his old college laptop in his Seattle apartment on Jan. 27, 2021. Helms co-founded Black in Technology, an organization dedicated to helping students of color in Computer Science.
Buy Photos Former UNC student, Charlie Helms poses for a virtual portrait with his old college laptop in his Seattle apartment on Jan. 27, 2021. Helms co-founded Black in Technology, an organization dedicated to helping students of color in Computer Science.

Prior to arriving at UNC, 2020 graduate Charlie Helms had only briefly heard about the field of computer science. But when he attended UNC’s admitted students day, he was immediately drawn to the Black and Latinx computer science group that the computer science department advertised. 

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna have people that look like me that are coders,’” Helms said. “I’ve never met a Black computer scientist before, so I was like, ‘This is amazing. It’s a perfect match.’” 

But after initially struggling in coursework for COMP 110: Intro to Programming at UNC, he began searching for the club that initially drew him to the University. To his disappointment, Helms discovered that the club had been inactive for nearly two years. 

For Helms, the next logical step was to start his own organization. And after connecting with Olivia McPhaul, another UNC graduate who now works as a cyber risk analyst at Deloitte, Black in Technology was born. 

Black in Technology has planned numerous events to support Black UNC students in STEM and collaborated with other groups, including Xcel, queer_hack and the National Society of Black Engineers.

The organization has also planned events with companies including Cisco and Microsoft, hosted Black software engineers and developers to talk to BiT members about their experiences working in those roles and offered opportunities for resume workshops and mock interviews.

“These are things that we need to help connect us with these professionals,” Helms said. “Putting your application in a portal is only seeing so much, but when you’re in person talking to them, it’s changing the game completely.” 

After one event with Cisco, some members got internship and full-time job offers — including one of McPhaul’s closest friends. 

“He said to me: ‘This is what I see as my dream job. I am doing something that I enjoy, so thank you for having this opportunity,’” she said. “Hearing something like that and actually seeing it come to fruition was amazing.”

In addition to professional development events, BiT has partnered with the Black Student Movement at UNC to help get more Black students interested in technology and the computer science major. 

For McPhaul, the co-founder of Black in Technology, the drive behind wanting to support Black students at UNC came from attending a conference for students to learn more about career paths and technology.

She met Helms through Brandi Day, the former diversity and inclusion coordinator for the department of computer science. Day eventually became the group’s adviser. 

“I can say this, and maybe Charlie can agree, that we can attribute a lot of our success to her, because she cares so much,” McPhaul said. “Sometimes just having that one faculty member supporting you gives you that confidence and boost to say, ‘I’m doing what I need to be doing.’”

Helms said he advises other students to reach out to others when they need help. He said once he reached out for help himself, he saw a huge shift in his grades and class experiences. 

“I was understanding the material better, and I feel like I had better friendships established by actually reaching out and leaning on my community more,” Helms said. 

McPhaul said BiT and other organizations for people of color are important because without them, voices will be stifled. Since UNC is a predominantly white institution, she said students of color will continue to feel unseen and unheard until action is taken on the student and University level.

“Lifetime success starts with our foundation,” she said. “I want something to define every single person in a way that they feel like it can propel them exactly where they need to be in life.”

Amanda Harris, a UNC junior and president of Black in Technology, said she joined the organization during her first year after meeting Helms in the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program.

Harris said being the president of BiT during the pandemic involved a shift in ideas and events for members. 

“We definitely have seen a decrease in numbers and our events, unfortunately, so we’re trying to come up with new ideas to keep our members engaged,” Harris said.

Harris said it is important for Black students to be involved in technology because products are often made by white people — and not with people of color in mind. She said this often results in products that are inherently biased and do not cater to everyone’s needs, which further widens a gap that already exists between opportunities of races. 

“We really want to be a support system to uplift people who are interested in technology, and hopefully even pursue it so that we can have a world with technological devices that cater to everyone,” she said. 

For Black students, Helm said there are many different obstacles to face when going into STEM. The advice he gives to future members or other Black students in STEM is to stick with it.

“Until you know it, you won’t love it,” he said. “I had to keep that in mind myself: the reason I don’t love it is because I don’t know it well. I have to fully take the time to study it and become more comfortable with it for it to feel like second nature.” 

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